‘I think I’ve hurt my hand gardening’ is probably the worst thing I could have said to the doc back in April this year. I’d spent a weekend in the garden clearing up after the winter and in particular cutting back the hedge that separates the garden from the golf course. It’s a nice view in the summer and one that can only be preserved by some serious surgery to the wooded undergrowth. The repeated action of cutting relatively small branches back using an old pair of secateurs caused an achy right hand. A couple of mornings later whilst having a shower I noticed a strange tingling feeling as I washed my hair and that the fingertips of my right hand had gone numb. Over the next few days the numbness extended the full length of the middle two fingers and with a golfing trip to Turkey a couple of weeks away it was time to see a doctor. Like most middle aged men going to the Doctor’s Surgery is something I avoid and is an absolute measure of last resort. But the need to be ‘competitive’ on the annual Turkey Golf Trip was enough to push me into action.
The doc assessed the condition of the hand and considerate of my gardening story and the fact I was convinced I had some form of RSI (Repetitive Strain Injury) he diagnosed ‘Carpal Tunnel’. A condition where the nerves that pass through a ‘tunnel’ in the wrist become aggravated and inflamed causing numbness and pain to the fingers in the hand – except the little finger.
With Turkey just a week away I took to Amazon and ordered a wrist support, a thumb support, an elbow support, neck support – the lot. When it came to pack for the trip, my suitcase was awash with blue neoprene.
I tried very hard to get a handicap review in light of my affliction and the fact that I was both struggling to hold and swing any golf club. Sadly our Tour Handicap Chairman is not known for his sympathetic views and the news to the other tour members that I was ‘crocked’ was greeted with gleeful smiles that said ‘Butler was out of the race for the Ottoman Trophy’. Only Tel who thought my condition was a ruse and a double-bluff was annoyed, as he’d put his money on me to win in the sweep stake.
Needless to say my golf during that week in May was awful - couldn’t drive, couldn’t hit a 7 iron 100yds and definitely couldn’t get out of a bunker. Each morning as the teams rearranged for that day’s four-balls you could see the despondency on the faces of the other three players in my group. They realised that they had been lumbered with ‘deadweight Butler’ who would condemn them to last place in the team comp and loss of vital overall points to the main event. But I ‘played’ all five rounds, four on a buggy and even managed one round with a Stableford score of 23 points – the other rounds averaged a meagre 15 points. For a single figure player this was a major bruise to my ego.
After a few days and one evening session in the bar that extended into the wee hours I returned alone to my villa and as I walked through the hotel gardens to it, I noticed I had a distinct limp. I’d also noticed that over the week the numbness had crept into the whole of my right hand (including the little finger), wrist, forearm and my upper arms felt heavy and cumbersome. I resolved that when I got back to Macc another visit to the ‘doc’ was needed.
After a few more tests the doc determined that all was not right and a referral to a neurologist was required. As I waited for the appointment to come through, two more important appointments were just a few days away. The first was Bruce Springsteen at the Etihad. I’ve seen him quite a few times since my first concert at Round Hay Park in 1984 and was very excited to see him again on his ‘River’ Tour. The access to the Etihad from our drop off point required us to walk over the long white bridge and bizarrely I struggled to walk over it – my brain was telling my feet what to do but they weren’t doing it! Yet four hours later after Bruce concluded yet another epic Manchester concert in the rain I walked out of there as though nothing was wrong. Four days later my football team played at Wembley in the Championship Play Offs - the last time we’d been there was in 1991. Once again when I drove into Beaconsfield train station to catch the over ground train into Wembley, as I got out of the car I couldn’t walk! After a few minutes I was slowly able to do so, get to Wembley and watch my team lose, but backed by the massive support of the fans from Sheffield.
It was time to see the doc again. With no time to make an appointment, I just decided to turn up at the surgery and ‘walk-in’ so to speak. At the reception desk I explained that my condition seemed to be deteriorating faster than the assessment. ‘Gary Butler please’ said the doc and as soon as he saw me walk down the corridor like a drunken pirate (only the parrot was missing) he immediately rang the Acute Assessment Unit at the local hospital and arranged my admission. An overnight stay and the following morning after some further tests my Consultant sat on the edge of the bed and asked if she could speak frankly to me. Those who know me understand that speaking frankly is the only way I understand. ‘We think you may have MS’ she said. She explained that I would spend some time that afternoon in the MRI machine to have my head and entire spinal column imaged to see if they could find the source of the problem. ‘If it's MS it will show up in the brain scan – if its relating to your spinal column it will show up when we scan that’ she explained. ‘ It won’t be MS’ I proclaimed, ‘It’ll be something in my neck’.
Later that evening with Mrs B in my hospital room shaking her head and stating that I was being a bit of a ‘drama queen’ the Consultant entered carrying a neck brace. ‘Mr Butler you were right’ she said. ‘I always am’ I said with a smile. She explained that the vertebrae in my neck were collapsing in on my spinal cord causing compression and constriction of the cord. This was why the messages from my brain to my limbs weren’t getting through. It was quite severe and emergency surgery was probably needed. I had been playing golf in Turkey with three discs in my neck impinging on my spinal cord.
A week later I was on the operating table at Salford Royal Hospital having a procedure known as an ACDF (Anterior Cervical Dissection and Fusion). In effect they were going to fuse some of the vertebrae in my neck together using a titanium cage, in the hope that it would pull back the bony spine from the cord allowing it to decompress and hopefully restore some of the functions I was slowly losing. It was unlikely that I would regain all function and the probability would be that the damage will have caused permanent signal change in the cord.
I returned home on Friday 10th June – the start of the European Championships. Over the next eight weeks I would sit in the chair in the lounge ‘forced’ to watch every football match in the Euros, all of Wimbledon, the magnificent coverage of The Open on Sky, and most of the Olympics. It was tough!
I’ve got most things back now – although I still don’t have any real feeling in the lower three fingers of my right hand, a slight limp in my right leg and my balance on anything other than a flat surface is a bit dodgy. Cervical Stenosis has become more common as we humans live longer, grow taller and spend too much time with a poor posture – for me 30,000 miles a year in corporate life and too many hours crouched over laptop, tablet and phone have taken their toll. But I was very lucky – I was a few millimetres or one ill-considered move away from paralysis from the neck down. It’s time to make the most of what I’ve got and get on with life again. I may need another op, we’ll see, but when I reflect on the Paralympics my challenge is nothing compared to theirs.
So what have I learnt?
Firstly the benefit of an eBusiness is we can still sell, pack, ship and invoice for the watches we offer on our website whether or not I’m there (we processed two orders whilst I was under the knife).
Golf is such a great game that no matter what your handicap you can still get a handicap and get out there and enjoy it .. of a fashion – my short game has remained intact largely from the chip and putt practice on the lounge carpet throughout my 'confinement', although my long game is now very short! Hopefully a new phase in my golf career as a high handicap bandit is about to begin. I’m also trying a ‘stack and tilt’ approach on my golf swing keeping my weight more on my stronger left side throughout the swing.
Finally when I next see a Doctor I will never ever again tell them what’s wrong. They’re the experts, they can decide. I don’t ever again want to set off on a ten week detour when a serious condition lies beneath.
So enjoy the end of the golf season and the Race to Dubai – will Rory snatch it again? I’m already looking forward to next season when hopefully I’ll be back on course… both on and off the course!